When I was 18, I went to an acting conservatory. There were about 20 of us in my class, ranging from 18, me, the youngest, to some in their mid-30s.
The director of the program, one of our acting teachers, was a gritty, straight-talking, chain-smoking theater veteran who paced around, asking very personal questions, laughing lasciviously which typically morphed into a coughing fit. We were scared of him. And looked up to him. Daddy Larry. We wanted to learn what he knew. We wanted him to be proud of us.
One day, early on, we did a movie theme exercise. Two people were to get up and improvise a scene from a movie style, using gibberish–a film noir, a tragedy, a slapstick comedy. After a time, he’d call out a new genre and you’d both have to switch. Smack in the middle of me doing my English farce scene, he called out, Bergman.
I had only the sketchiest notion of who he meant, but was it Ingrid Bergman, the actress? Or the other Bergman, what was his name, Ingamar? Is that Swedish? Dutch? And what kind of a movie is that? I could vaguely picture a lot of serious talking, a bleak landscape, everything in black and white..?
I had no idea.
I lurched around, doing terrible Swedish gibberish. (All I could think of was an old lady in a rocking chair eating Swedish meatballs, murmuring, Urnka burnka.) After what felt like an eternity, he said,
What are you doing?
Uh. I don’t know.
Well, do you know who Bergman is?
Can you even name one of his films?
He looked at the ‘audience’ (the rest of the class) then back to me, then back at them as he launched into a rant, One must do one’s homework, know one’s craft! How can you call yourself an actress if you don’t, blah blah blah…I shrank to the size of his lucky strike cigarette ash.
I stayed at the conservatory, learned a bunch, saw a Bergman film or two, but I carried it with me for years, this humiliation for not knowing what I simply did not know, until one day I got it. Ahhhhhhhhhh. All that talk about ignorance, about not knowing one’s craft? He was talking about himself.
No, Larry, I could have said. I don’t know. That is why I’m in this ACTING SCHOOL. So why don’t you cut the shaming and chop chop, TEACH ME, hmmm?
I knew only what I knew. Until I knew more.
This is how life goes.
Now I wouldn’t stand there blinking and turning red, feeling exposed for the imposter I clearly was, mortified that I wasn’t already an accomplished actress, theatre expert, improvisational genius.
Now I would say, Hey, why don’t you fuck all the way off? Or more likely, Gee, I’m just not familiar with Bergman, or possibly I would have waited out the tantrum saying nothing, taking a small step back so as to not get any of it get on me.
Dear Reader, has anyone ever put you down? Dismissed or leveled you with unhelpful feedback on something that mattered to you?
If so, here are two things to remember:
They are speaking about/to themselves.
“Part of the job is to get a terrible review from someone who doesn’t understand you” (or themselves, I might add). This is a nugget from Steve Martin whose agent told him early in his carer that he would never make it in stand-up.
Consider the crap thing they said to be a sign that they don’t GET YOUR GENIUS and also a rite of passage, sanctifying your path.